On being Protestant and thinking about the Sacraments (Part 3)

This is a third part in a series. Don’t miss Part 1 and Part 2 (This post will stand alone, but does draw heavily on the previous two).

As I’ve been thinking through Communion and Baptism, I considered the possibility that any action done by a believer in service of someone else is a sacrament. My reasoning was that they are gracious acts, and loving one’s neighbor was commanded by Jesus, so these acts seemed to fit the criteria of a sacrament upon an initial glance. However, I’m not convinced that each of these actions incites a necessary conferral of grace. In sacramental behavior one must be receiving, not acting, and there must be an element of faith in the receiving. Now, while the sacraments are conferred by someone, it is only the person receiving the sacramental symbol in faith that is considered a participant in the sacrament. No one can administer the sacrament to themselves; they must be served by someone else. Thus, not every action by a believer can be considered sacramental.

Upon further research, I discovered that there is a healthy discussion among Protestants concerning whether church can be considered a sacrament. Since this discussion sounded similar to my thoughts concerning Christian service as a sacrament, the fact that the church is legitimately considered as a possible a sacrament in some circles caused me to pause. Let’s consider this concept in more detail.

To begin, a definition is necessary: I say the “church is a sacrament,” the ‘church’ denotes the body of Christ in a corporate context, with emphasis on the preaching of God’s Word and ministry among the members.

The thinking of the church as a sacrament on first blush seems to fit the definition pretty squarely: the church is the body of Christ, the physical manifestation of Christ to the world today. In the words of theologian Eberhard Jungel, “The church is a sacramental sign corresponding to the sacramental being of Jesus Christ.”3 This statement is intriguing because it draws a parallel with the language that is also used for communion, and thereby pushes us towards the idea of the church being a sacrament. Moreover, the ministry of the body one to another moves us further towards such a conclusion. If your ministry to me is caring for me and loving me the way Christ would, then in a sense, you are conferring to me the grace that is given at the cross, thereby fulfilling one of the key elements of a sacrament.

The notion of the church as the body of Christ comes straight from the New Testament, albeit from Paul. If a sacrament must be originally instituted by Christ himself, then we may have already stepped too far. Of course, Christ both preached and ministered to others—so in that sense, he participated in these activities and gave significance to them the same way that he did to Communion and Baptism. He even commanded us to love our brothers, which is similar enough to his command to baptize that it bears closer examination.

One objection ought to be raised here: the contention that the meeting together of the body of Christ and it’s ministry among its members was not instituted by Christ as a means by which grace is conferred sacramentally. While acts of ministry among the members of the body of Christ may be gracious, they were not specific acts instituted as a means to recall our minds to reflect on the sacrifice of Christ, nor are they outward acts that confirm our covenant with God in Christ. Thus, we must be leery of the claim of the church being a sacrament.

There is more about the idea of the church as sacrament that gives it credence: the concept of reception, particularly in the receiving of the Word of God through preaching. The idea of conferral of grace is neatly demonstrated in the idea of the receiving the Word of God in faith. For example, in Communion, we remember the work of the Word of God (Jesus) on the Cross and believe that the salvation given there is presently being applied to our lives; in essence, we receive the Word of God in faith. It is reasonable to assert that the literal receiving of the Word of God in faith from other believers ought to have credence as a sacrament itself. Such an idea has a lot of merit if you have an ecclesiology that advocates for the necessity of the ministry of all believers and regular preaching from more than one individual. These elements are necessary because sacraments cannot be self-administered—and I have doubts about whether a Pastor who is the exclusive preacher and is rarely himself taught can be considered to be receiving teaching and exhortation. If he is not receiving from someone else, then he is not participating in an element of a sacrament, and it seems odd to count something as a sacrament that is not regularly participated in by all believers. Thus, outside of an ecclesiology that embraces the regular preaching of a number of elders on a regular basis, the element of pastoral ministry cannot be considered a sacrament.

The final objection–which I take to be enough to eliminate the suggestion-is that the margin for error in the sacrament is significantly widened in this practice. While you certainly can mishandle Communion and Baptism, there is a pretty large target to hit and it’s almost impossible to stray into error with nearly 2,000 years of tradition and fairly clear lines mapped out for the ceremonies. Preaching and ministry, on the other hand, allows much potential for error and it is easier to harm someone through their malpractice. This is a major problem for the ‘church is a sacrament’ concept because then the definition of when it is efficacious gets squishy fast, and it seems that sacramental definitions is hardly the place where you want a lack of rigidity.

In sum, the idea of the church as a sacrament is one that gives us many reasons to pause. While initially the idea seems to have some merit, upon closer examination, this notion does not stand the test of objections that are tossed at it.

Regardless, I think there are a lot of fruitful attitudes that come from thinking of the church as having sacramental properties, if not a sacrament proper. First, it gives gravitas to a practice that many Christians feel is supplementary and not vital (in a very real sense—see Hebrews 10:19-25). Second, it gives importance to our interactions with other believers. If your reception of my ministry to you is considered similar to, though not actual participation in a sacrament, then a number of interactions now have weight that perhaps we didn’t give them before. Finally, it would cause us to consider carefully how we minister to our brothers, because our ministries are a reflection of Christ. Ultimately, the church may not be a sacrament, but I do think it would do the body of Christ good to reflect on the ways that the church has sacramental elements.

1 Jungel, Eberhard. Theological Essays: The Church as Sacrament? (Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 1989), 191.

2 Del Colle, Ralph. The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology: The Church. (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2007), 262.

Published by

Stephanie Wilkerson

Stephanie holds a BA from Biola University in Biblical and Theological Studies and is a perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. She presently works for a film production company in Irvine as Project Coordinator and is enjoying getting to apply her love of writing to an more practical arena than academia. Stephanie has the distinction of being one of the few Vegan, country-music-hating Wyomingites in the world and has a deep love for the beauty of the mountains, though she now lives among the sprawling urban masses of LA County. During her infrequent bouts of free time, Stephanie enjoys reading (particularly classics and theology), learning German and Adobe Suite, and tormenting her roommates and their boyfriends.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nathanthebennett Nathan Bennett

    I would recommend the book For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmemann for further reading on sacrament. It is from the Eastern Orthodox perspective. I found it most illuminating because it introduced an idea of sacramental living, in that we meet with God through our participation in the material world. As we eat and drink, we do so not merely to sustain life for its own sake, but we do so out of reliance upon God and participation in the life of God 1. for our own sustenance and 2. for the continuation of our own knowing God and serving him.

  • Gary

    Baptist/evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ,

    I ask you to consider
    these points:

    1. When God said that he would preserve his Word, what
    did he mean?

    he mean that he would preserve the original papyrus and parchment upon which
    his Word was written? If so, then his
    Word has disappeared as none of the original manuscripts remain.

    he mean that he would preserve his word in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and
    Greek only? He would not
    preserve his Word when it was translated into all the other languages of the

    did God mean that he would preserve his Word…the message/the words…the
    Gospel: the free gift of salvation, and
    the true doctrines of the Christian Faith?
    Would God allow his Word/his message to mankind to be so polluted by
    translation errors that no translation, into any other language from the three
    original languages, continues to convey his true words?

    2. There IS no
    translation of the Bible, from the original ancient languages, into any
    language, anywhere on earth, that translates the Bible as the
    Baptists/evangelicals believe it should be translated.

    Bible translation on earth translates Acts 2:38 as, “Repent and believe in Jesus
    Christ every one of you and you will receive the Holy Ghost. Then be baptized as a public profession of
    your faith.”

    is no translation that translates, into any language, Acts 22:16 as, “ And now why tarriest thou? arise, believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord
    and Savior, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord. Then be baptized.” Not a single translation in the entire
    world translates that verse in any way remotely resembling the manner in which Baptists
    believe it should be translated.

    Isn’t that a problem?

    And this verse, I Peter 3:21 as, “Asking Christ into your heart in
    a spiritual baptism, which water Baptism symbolizes, which corresponds to this,
    now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God
    for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,”

    And Mark 16:16 as, “He that believes will be saved,
    and then baptized, but he that does not believe will be condemned.”

    Why would God allow EVERY English translation of the
    Bible throughout history to be mistranslated or use such confusing language as
    to suggest that God forgives sins in Baptism?
    And not only all English translations, ALL translations of the Bible
    have retained these “mistranslations or confusing wording”.

    Do you
    honestly believe that God would allow his Word to be so polluted with
    translation errors that EVERY Bible in the world, if read in its simple, plain
    interpretation, would tell all the people of the world that God forgives sins
    in water baptism??

    3. Why is there not one single piece of
    evidence from the early Christians that indicates that ANYONE in the 800-1,000
    years after Christ believed that: Water
    baptism is ONLY a public profession of faith/act of obedience; sins are NOT
    forgiven in water baptism? Yes, you will
    find statements by these early Christians that salvation is by faith, but do
    Baptists and evangelicals really understand how a sinner obtains saving faith?
    THAT IS THE MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION, MY FRIENDS! Does the sinner produce faith by his own free
    will or does God provide faith and belief as a gift, and if God does provide
    faith and belief as a free gift,
    with no strings attached, when exactly does God give it?

    4. Is it possible that: Baptist-like believers, at some point near or
    after 1,000 AD, were reading the Bible and came across verses that read
    “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” and “Call upon the
    name of the Lord and you will be saved” and established their doctrine of
    Salvation/Justification first, based on these and similar verses alone, and then, looked at the issue of water
    baptism, and since the idea that God forgives sins in water baptism doesn’t
    seem to fit with the verses just mentioned, re-interpreted these verses to fit
    with their already established doctrine, instead of believing the “baptism
    verses” literally?

    Is it possible that BOTH groups of verses are
    literally correct?? If we believe God’s
    Word literally, he says that he saves/forgives sins when sinners believe/call
    AND when they are baptized? Why not
    believe that God can give the free gift of salvation in both situations: when a sinner hears the Gospel and believes
    and when a sinner is baptized?

    Should we re-interpret God’s plain, simple
    words just because they don’t seem to make sense to us?

    Baptist/evangelical brothers and sisters, your doctrine is very well thought
    out and very reasonable…but it is wrong.
    Do you really believe that God would require an education in ancient
    Greek or a Greek lexicon to understand what he really wants to say to you? And do you really believe that Baptist
    “Greek” scholars understand Greek better than the Greeks themselves? If the Greek language, correctly translated,
    states in the Bible that Baptism is only a public profession of faith as
    Baptists say, then why do the Greek Orthodox believe that the Greek Bible plainly
    says, in Greek, that God forgives sins in water baptism? Somebody doesn’t know their Greek!

    investigate this critical doctrine further.
    Do you really want to appear before our Lord in heaven one day and find
    out that you have been following a false doctrine invented in the sixteenth
    century by Swiss Ana-baptists?

    bless you!